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by Caleb Reynolds, who takes you for a walk in the woods and points out the rabbit holes…

Is it true that no one in medieval Europe drank plain water because they didn’t trust it?

Wax well in Middlesex, dates back to 1274.

The short answer is “no”.

The long answer is “noooooooooooo”.

But, weren’t prisoners given only bread and water as a punishment? Well, yes. In a way. Being confined to bread and water was a standard method of treating prisoners, and it was a punishment used by the church levied on people who broke ecclesiastical law or who committed cardinal sins. For example, the 11th-century writer Burchard of Worms offers this penalty against people who swore against God:

“If thou hast sworn by God’s hair or by His head or made use of any other blasphemous expression against God, if thou hast done so but once unwittingly, thou shalt do penance for seven days on bread and water. If after having been upbraided for it thou hast done it a second or a third time, thou shalt do penance for fifteen days on bread and water.”

The Penitential of Columban states that a cleric who begets a child must do penance of seven years pilgrimage, with only bread and water for sustenance.

But we must remember that the punishment wasn’t the bread and water: for the most part, the bread and water was of good quality. There are plenty of cases where the bread was moldy or the water was stagnant or dirty, but those were the exception rather than the rule. Most people who were confined to bread and water were expected to live through the punishment, so they weren’t poisoned; mostly, it was a temporary punishment. But, again, the punishment wasn’t the bread and water; the punishment was not having anything better. No bacon, no ale, no wine, no mocha frappuccinos. Only the basic food and drink to keep you alive.

Skinner’s Well.

Water was, is, and always has been, the most important beverage for every living person that ever existed. It was not only the most important ingredient in cooking and brewing, but it was consumed straight up. Yes, there are more references to drinking beer, wine, mead, etc. than to drinking water because water was so common. If you were to read through a year’s worth of cooking magazines, you will find a thousand references to beer, wine, spirits, tea, and coffee for each reference to drinking plain water. Future historians might assume that water was rarely consumed, on its own, in our lifetimes, if they only had access to Bon Appétit. But, the words of our ancestors do clearly tell us that they drank water. Ovid wrote in Epistoloe Ex Ponto (12-13AD), “There is no small pleasure in sweet water. [Lat., Est in aqua dulci non invidiosa voluptas.]”

From Baccaccio’s 14th century The Decameron: “And when they descended to inspect the huge, sunlit courtyard, the cellars stocked with excellent wines, and the well containing abundant supplies of fresh, ice-cold water, they praised [their lodgings] even more.” Ælfric of Eynsham wrote in the 10th century, “Ale if I have any, or water if I have no ale.” A Brother Leonard of the monastery of St. Jacques, in Liège, wrote, in the 14th century, “Avoid small and strong ale and beer, unless very old or sour. But wine or water and the like, however, take as drink.” In the 6th century, the monastery of St. Gwenolé’s at Landevenec in Brittany, required that the monks were only to drink “water and what could be made of the fruit of woodland or wild trees” and that they were to drink “no liquor of grapes nor honey, neither milk nor ale”.

A Swiss Friar, named Felix Fabri, wrote a lengthy account of his pilgrimage to Jerusalem (late 15th Century). He wrote that water is the usual drink of the ordinary pilgrim, although those rich enough brought their own wine. He also recommended avoiding the strong wines of Cyprus, unless they were watered down. He recommended that pilgrims carry at least two bottles; one for water and the other well hidden for wine to avoid the disapproval of the Muslims, once they arrived in Palestine. Friar Felix frequently commented on the flavor of various streams and wells that they stopped at, on their way to and from the Holy Land. Some of them he spoke of highly. The water of the Jordan River, however, had little to recommend it except the religious connections: “It was not very pleasant to drink, being warm, and as muddy as a swamp.” Very well-off pilgrims were instructed to buy three nice barrels: two for wine and one for water. “The best water for keeping is to drawn at St. Nicholas, and when that is used fill the barrel again at any port of call.” “The Pilgrims Guide To Santiago De Compostela”, written in the 12th Century, is a travel guide for pilgrims telling of dangers to avoid and sites to see on your pilgrimage. It tells which rivers you can safely drink from and which are unsafe.

Coldbath spring.

Water was the requisite drink during fasts, particularly the more solemn ones, when only bread and water were consumed.  Again, they were giving up everything that would have tasted better; they were not trying to poison themselves with foul water. People categorized the quality sources such as rain, spring, well, river, lake, snow, and ice. Pure spring water was considered the best and stagnant water was the worst. Bartholomew the Englishman, in the 1200’s, ranked spring water from a northward flowing spring as being the best water to drink; in decreasing order came river water, lake water, pond water, and then swamp water. With these came the warning that water not from a spring was often poisonous and should always be boiled, which clearly means that Bartholomew understood that bad water could be made good, if it was boiled, although we can assume that he knew nothing of pathological microbiology.

Soldiers and sailors took considerable time and effort to make sure that fresh water was barreled and transported while on the march or at sea. Early long-distance sailing was made up of short hops from one source of fresh water to another, so that the ships would not have to carry more than a few days worth of water. Modern recommendations for soldiers in the field call for two to 10 liters of water per soldier per day, depending on the environment, temperature and activity. There is no reason to assume that these quantities would be any less for medieval soldiers or sailors. These amounts of water would take up a lot of space aboard a ship or require a long baggage train to carry. Journeys were planned on where to get fresh water to refill stock for the next leg of the journey.

Crusaders lost the Battle of Hattin (1187) because they did not bring enough water for the journey from Sapphorie towards Tiberias. Experts on modern logistics calculated that only enough water was brought for a journey of three days; the time it would take a fast horse and rider to make the journey. But an army of 20 to 30,000 infantry would have needed at least a week to cover the same distance. A common tactic, in desert warfare, was to fortify water sources to prevent the enemy from reaching it, which is what Saladin did at the Horns of Hattin. Extreme warfare called for poisoning the water to sicken or kill large numbers of the enemy.

Natural springs, sometimes called holy wells, were common and well used. London had 20 such holy wells at the time of the Norman Conquest. William FitzStephen, a monk, wrote around 1180, “There are also in the northern suburbs of London springs of high quality, with water that is sweet, wholesome, clear, and whose runnels ripple amid pebbles bright. Among which Holywell, Clerkenwell and St. Clement’s Well have a particular reputation; they receive throngs of visitors and are especially frequented by students and young men of the city, who head out on summer evenings to take the country air.” The Lady Well was close to Ladywell Road, west of the river Ravensbourne. It had probably been a holy well dedicated, like the nearby church, to St Mary the Virgin. The first known record of it dates from 1592. It supplied water to the nearby buildings until the building of a sewer in Ladywell Road in 1855 caused it to run dry.

An Italian food and health manual from the 14th century recommends water in the following fashion: “Warm Water (Aqua Calida) Nature: Cold and humid in the second degree. Optimum: Lukewarm and sweet. Usefulness: It cleans the stomach lining. Dangers: It weakens the mechanism of digestion. Neutralization of the dangers: By mixing it with rose water.”

In addition, we have quite a number of laws that were written to protect the water supply. A regulation from Paris in 1296, for example, stipulated that no cloth was to be bleached within six feet of any well. Laws were written, in various towns and cities, dictating where laundry could be washed; where tanners could set up shop; where butchers could dump their offal: all downstream of where people got their drinking water. Regulations from the Roman Legions, in force up until the 5th century AD, clearly detailed the punishments for letting horses, donkeys, or oxen drink water upstream of where soldiers collected their drinking water.

De re aedificatoria, title page of the 1541 edition.

Records across Europe indicate the importance of clean drinking water, as well as the time and effort spent in providing easy access to it. The Franciscan Friary, in Southampton, built a sophisticated system of pipes, in 1304, to transport water over almost 2km from a natural spring. The delivery system provided enough water for the Friary’s brewery, kitchen, fountains, water mills and laundry with enough left over to provide fresh water to the village of Southampton. Archaeological evidence indicates that vast sums were spent on water delivery systems to towns and cities. In addition to the ancient Roman and Greek aqueducts, many of which were in constant use up until the 20th century, new aqueducts were built in the Middle Ages. Castelnau, in the south of France, built an aqueduct to provide water to the village, in 1433. Sometime between then and 1665 the aqueduct was expanded and a water pond was built to catch and hold rainwater.

Leon Battista Alberti, a 15th century engineer, wrote the following in “De Re Aedificatoria”, “Since a city requires a large amount of water not only for drinking, but also for washing, for gardens, tanners and fullers, and drains, and — this is very important — in case of sudden outbreak of fire, the best should be reserved for drinking, and the remainder distributed according to need.” In the 12th century, the Belgian town of Ypres built 23km of pipes that supplied 891 public and private cisterns. Excavations in 1847 uncovered wood and lead pipes up to 11.5cm in diameter. Town records in 1280 show that the town appointed four pipemasters to oversee the water system and to issue fines to anyone who polluted the water system. In 13th century London, the city council began constructions on what was then called “The Great Conduit”, which was a complex network of pipes and pumps that brought water from a fresh spring at Tyburn to large cisterns at Cheapside, which then fed local cisterns and wells all across London. Most people either drew their water from the nearest well or paid a “water cob”, or water-carrier, to bring them water in a pair of three-gallon buckets suspended from a yoke carried across the cob’s shoulders.

The Venerable Bede wrote that King Edwin of Northumbria “established a benefit for his people in that in many places where clear springs or streams ran by well-used roads, where they were most frequented he ordered posts with bronze bowls hung on them to be set up for the refreshment of travelers.” Michelangelo, the famous Renaissance artist and turtle, was advised to drink water from a spring outside of Rome. “I am much better than I have been.” he wrote to his doctor. “Morning and evening I have been drinking the water from a spring about forty miles from Rome, which breaks up the [kidney] stone … I have had to lay in a supply at home and cannot drink or cook with anything else.” Lupus Servatus, the 9th century Abbot of Ferrieres, in Bordeaux, wrote, “Let us make use of a healthy, natural drink which will sometimes be of benefit to both body and soul … if it is drawn not from a muddy cistern but from a clear well or the current of a transparent brook.”

We must acknowledge that given a choice, most people would choose a flavored beverage over plain water, but we all drink water. We must also acknowledge that in the days before modern water treatment, drinking plain water could be hazardous to one’s health: microscopic pathogens can sicken and kill a person even if that person doesn’t know a thing about germ theory. Our medieval ancestors might not have understood the mechanisms of invisible water borne diseases, but they knew that if the water was cloudy, or smelled, it was probably not safe to drink. Boiling the water to make soup, ale, mead, or much later, coffee and tea, made the water safer to drink. But I am confident that if we were to offer a cup of clean, cold water to a random person anytime in the far past, it would be much appreciated.

One last note, and a spark to light one’s imagination: London’s “Great Conduit” was so sophisticated that the water could be shut off for any given area, not only for repairs, but for public celebrations. We have records of the cisterns being filled with wine and pumped out to all local wells in celebration of Edward I’s return from Crusade as well as for the coronation of Richard II. So much wine was used that all citizens of London could drink their fill all day long. If anyone is looking for a research project: enjoy.